A Few Thoughts About Twitter

People often say Twitter is a virtual hellhole. That may be true for people who are well-known and write about controversial subjects. I’ve been off and on the site for a few years and found it a nice way to stay informed about current events, mainly politics, and occasionally read something funny. It all depends on who you to choose to follow and interact with. I recommend Paul Waldman of The Washington Post (for politics), Paul Krugman of The New York Times (for politics and economics), Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo (for politics and news if you can tolerate an occasional Wordle tweet), David Roberts (for politics and climate if you don’t mind your blood pressure going up) and Conan O’Brien (for humor and relatively few plugs for his podcast). 

Today I read an article by a philosophy professor named Justin Smith that’s mainly about Twitter and the way negative comments often pile up (getting a lot of comments usually means they’re negative). He thinks some famous people and big organizations like lots of negative comments because it shows they’re important.

One thing I’ve noticed about Twitter is that a popular way to dismiss someone’s “tweet” (I wish it was called something else) is to point out how few followers they have, as in “Why would I respond to someone who only has 12 followers?” It’s a classic ad hominem attack (for other examples, see this).

What I found is that the best way for an average person to acquire followers – and thereby appear significant – is to follow them. They often reciprocate and follow you. But that creates a problem. The more people you follow, the more tweets appear in your feed or timeline. Prof. Justin Smith follows 141 accounts. A journalist I follow follows 800. Another journalist follows 3,392. There is no way to keep up with tweets from that many people.

When I eventually acquired 50 or so mostly reciprocal followers (only 50!), I quickly realized it was necessary to mute most of them. That meant I’d still be their follower but not see any of their tweets. I expect that’s what being a follower means for many on Twitter, especially for those who “follow” a lot of people. They “follow” but don’t really.

Prof. Smith says nobody is on Twitter “for dialogue”. But I’ve found that following a few insightful, clever people and occasionally leaving a comment is the most satisfying way for me to use the site. Yesterday, for example, I read a NY Times article (that I won’t link to) about the US Senate that suggested Sen. Krysten Sinema (“Democrat” of Arizona) had an unanswerable argument for keeping the filibuster just the way it is. I found the reporter on Twitter and left a comment, disagreeing with her view. Last time I checked, it was the only comment she received. Perhaps she read it. Although it’s less likely it will change her mind about Sen. Sinema’s arguments, there’s no harm in giving feedback to a reporter.

I myself am following 13 Twitter accounts and am “followed” by 12. Sen. Sinema doesn’t fall into either category. (The Arizona Democratic Party, a major contributor to getting Sen. Sinema elected, has censured her because of her failure to protect voting rights.)

I just realized that I’ve said something positive about five white men and something negative about two white women. I don’t recommend following me.